ITTSBURGH - A men's basketball team that's lately been picking itself off the ground is about to meet one that may be coming down to earth.
For the University of Massachusetts, tonight's Atlantic 10 test against Duquesne comes against a team that hasn't beaten the Minutemen since 1991. Through thick and thin, up and down, John Calipari and Bruiser Flint, regular season and three of the last six Atlantic 10 tournaments — including last year's — beating the Dukes has been a constant.
But the matchup at the Palumbo Center is a little stickier, and not just because Duquesne is 6-1 at home.
"Their mentality is much different this year," Flint said. "(Duquesne coach) Darelle Porter really has them playing hard, believing they can win."
UMass (9-8, 3-2 Atlantic 10), which has beaten Duquesne 13 straight times, has won three of its last four games. Duquesne (8-9, 3-3) has lost three of its last four, so the perception that may have existed a couple of weeks ago — that Duquesne was rising and UMass was sliding — seems a bit premature.
But there is no question that Duquesne is much better than last year, when the Dukes won their first three games but finished 5-23, losing 17 straight at one point.
The cornerstone of the team, then and now, is 6-foot-7 Wayne Smith, who is averaging 19.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. The difference is that Smith, a sophomore, has help.
Several transfers, as well as freshmen guards Kevin Forney and Devin Montgomery, have joined returnees Smith, Courtney Wallace (12.7 ppg), Shawn Tann and Charles Stanfield. That gives Duquesne a deeper look, even though Smith remains the focal point of just about everything the Dukes do.
"Everyone has a plan to stop Wayne, and he's still doing well," Porter said. "He's for real. He certainly showed last year was not a fluke."
Smith averaged 16.6 points per game a year ago, becoming the first freshman to lead Duquesne in scoring. He averaged 17.5 in two games against UMass and had 19 in the Atlantic 10 tournament first-round game that UMass won 80-70.
But Smith was held to 7-for-18 shooting in that game, and Flint thinks this year's Minutemen are better defensively. In fact, he calls this his best defensive unit in his four years as coach.
The difference has been a press that wasn't utilized much during the non-conference schedule, but has emerged during Atlantic 10 play.
Offensively, UMass may have learned something by necessity in the first half of Saturday's 89-50 win over Rhode Island. With Monty Mack sidelined for most of the half by foul trouble, the Minutemen scored 42 first-half points and finished the game with 24 assists, 31 fast-break points and only 12 turnovers.
"I don't like playing without Monty, but we showed we could still do well," said point guard Jonathan DePina, who tied his career high with nine assists. "We got ourselves a lot of fast-break points, easy shots and open shots."
Flint is unfazed that the next two games, including Saturday's test against Virginia Tech, are on the road. UMass is 4-3 both at home and on the road.
"Sometimes we play a little better on the road than at home," he said. "But Duquesne can spread you out, take you off the dribble and score. We're going to have to play some defense."
hris Kirkland, a South Carolina native, is coming home. Well, not exactly, but close enough.
Kirkland, a former Sto-Rox star, is a senior co-captain at Massachusetts, where he also is the Minutemen's second-leading scorer and rebounder this season.
Tonight at the Palumbo Center, the 6-foot-6 forward is expected to be in the starting lineup against Duquesne, and it is likely he'll be playing in front of a loyal "home" following.
"He's been through it a little bit," Massachusetts coach Bruiser Flint said. "The last time he played there, he saw a lot of minutes. He's a senior and should be able to handle it by now."
Kirkland is averaging 15.3 points and 5.9 rebounds and is fourth in the Atlantic 10 in field-goal percentage (47.2). He also leads the Minutemen in minutes played (33.8) and is third in assists (32).
"He has developed into a nice all-around player," Duquesne coach Darelle Porter said, adding that the transformation from high school star to the college ranks wasn't easy for Kirkland.
"His first couple years, he needed to understand the whole concept of college, and he struggled with that," Porter said. "He relied on his athletic ability to get him by, but it takes a lot more than that."
Though Porter is happy to see a former district player doing so well at the college level, he had other ideas about where it would happen.
As an assistant under former Duquesne coach Scott Edgar, Porter watched Kirkland's high school career unfold, first at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and then for his final three seasons at Sto-Rox, where he averaged 20 poitns and 15 rebounds to lead the team to a WPIAL Class AA championship as a junior in 1995.
A year later, as a senior, Kirkland averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds a game to earn Tribune-Review player of the year honors.
"We recruited Kirkland originally, and then my buddy (former Massachusetts coach and Moon native) John Calipari snuck in there and grabbed him and then left for the NBA," Porter said with a laugh.
Kirkland was born in Florence, S.C., and lived in nearby Timmonsville until 1993, when he moved north to be with his brother, James - a former star at California (Pa.) - near Mt. Washington.
James is employed by Allegheny Academy, a juvenile detention center, and Chris first attended OLSH in Coraopolis before transferring to Sto-Rox after he and his brother moved to McKees Rocks.
Coming out of the WPIAL in 1996, Chris Kirkland arguably was the area's best high school player. But he agreed with Porter's assessment that it was a huge leap to the college level. He contemplated a transfer, considering, among others, Robert Morris.
"At first, I didn't think I was where I should be," Kirkland said. "When I got here, things were hard. I didn't have the mindset. But I talked to a lot of guys and worked hard, and it finally happened."
Kirkland has reached double figures in scoring the past six games for Massachusetts, including a 16-point effort in an 89-50 rout of Rhode Island on Saturday. He has led the Minutemen this year in scoring four times and in rebounding five, while scoring in double figures in 15 of 17 games.
Dating to last season, Kirkland has scored in double figures in 22 of the past 24 games, including six double doubles.
Kirkland played sparingly in his first two college seasons and struggled early last year as a junior. But he finished with a flurry, averaging 18.1 points and 9.7 rebounds in the final seven games.
He has maintained an impressive pace this season, despite off-season shoulder surgery.
"Chris has really improved his shooting, and that is all about his confidence," Flint said. "He came in with great athleticism, but he just didn't play with the same confidence in games as he did in practice. But he really stepped up his game in the second half of last year."
And he hasn't stopped since.
hris Kirkland's college basketball experience at Massachusetts was not anything to write home about during his first three years in Amherst.
When Kirkland was being recruited out of Sto-Rox High School in 1995, Massachusetts was the No. 1 team in NCAA Division I and played in the Final Four with Marcus Camby leading the way to a 35-2 season.
But things began to change when Kirkland arrived. Moon native John Calipari left for the head coaching post with the NBA's New Jersey Nets, and Camby left early for the NBA draft.
The Minutemen have never been the same. They have failed to win an NCAA tournament game since and missed the big show last year after a 14-16 season. Things were so bad after each season that Kirkland considered transferring.
Each time Kirkland was talked out of it by Massachusetts Coach Bruiser Flint.
"I had that confidence coming out of high school," said Kirkland, a 6-foot-6 senior. "But I wasn't playing and that lowered my confidence."
Kirkland played in 19 games as a freshman but had just 10 field goals and averaged 1.3 points per game. His sophomore season was not much better when he averaged 3.6 points per game. Last season, Kirkland began to deliver on his immense promise. He averaged 10.2 points and 6.7 rebounds. Still, there was something missing.
"Lots of things were going through my mind, like transferring," Kirkland said. "It never got to the point where I contacted everybody, but I looked into it. The coaches talked me out of it again."
This time Kirkland is happy with his decision, and when the Minutemen (9-8, 3-2) play Duquesne (8-9, 3-3) tonight at the Palumbo Center, Kirkland will be trying to solidify a place on the Atlantic 10's all-conference team in this his breakthrough season.
Kirkland has developed into one of the premier forwards in the conference. He is averaging 15.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, but has been at his best during the Atlantic 10 schedule. Kirkland has scored in double figures in each conference game. Kirkland had 16 points and five rebounds in an 89-50 victory over Rhode Island last Saturday. He had 18 points, eight rebounds and a career-high six assists against St. Joseph's, and 21 points, five rebounds and five steals against Fordham.
"He has made big strides since he first stepped on campus," Flint said. "He has really improved his shooting. He came here with big-time athleticism. A lot of it was confidence that he could play at this level. I always saw glimpses of it at practice, rebounding above the rim, the way he moved. But he didn't play with that same confidence in games. Last year was his biggest stride toward that confidence. That's when he found out he could play at this level.
"I think he is one of the best players in the league now. He's one of our go-to guys at the end of games. When he came onto campus, I never expected that. He's been a pleasant surprise. He didn't come in here very heralded."
Coming out of high school, Kirkland considered Duquesne and St. Bonaventure in addition to Massachusetts. He strongly considered the Dukes because of a young assistant coach - Darelle Porter - but opted to go away to school to alleviate the pressures of playing in front of friends and family on a daily basis.
"Chris Kirkland is having a great year," said Porter, who is in his second season as the Dukes' head coach. "Chris has developed a lot over the past four years. He turned out to be a great college basketball player."
ITTSBURGH - Just 12 days ago, the Duquesne Dukes were riding higher than they had in a long time.
Coming off an 85-78 win over Xavier, the team was just halfway through January and coach Darelle Porter's team was 8-7 with more wins this season than in all of last year's 5-23 campaign. Their 3-1 record in Atlantic 10 play not only assured them of a better conference record than a year ago (1-15), but had them sitting atop the A-10 West Division.
The success earned them national attention, including a feature in USA Today.
But the Duquesne team that will play host to the University of Massachusetts at 7:30 tonight has fallen back to earth. Back-to-back losses at Rhode Island and to St. Joseph's dropped the Dukes back below .500 at 8-9 (3-3 A-10).
"We're a good team," Porter said. "We just need to get back on the winning track."
UMass coach Bruiser Flint acknowledged Duquesne's improvement, but said his team needs to focus on itself.
"They have a better record, they beat Xavier, they're 7-1 at home," Flint said. "We've been playing a lot better. Let's get some momentum by winning some games. It's not about whether we're playing Duquesne. Let's just keep it going."
Senior co-captain Mike Babul said the Minutemen are taking the Dukes seriously.
"They have a lot of talented players coming back. They're playing real tough at home."
For the Dukes to beat UMass for the first time since rejoining the Atlantic 10 in 1993, they will need to get continued strong play from sophomore forward Wayne Smith. The Toronto native is following an impressive freshman year with a stronger second season. He leads Duquesne in scoring (19.4), rebounding (8.1), steals (33), and minutes played (34).
"Wayne is playing incredible right now," Porter said. "Every team has a plan to stop him and he's still playing great. He's been getting fouled a lot and his free-throw percentage is down (71 percent), but other than that everything has been on point."
Smith had more success than most last year against Babul, UMass' defensive specialist, scoring 16 and 19 points in two meetings.
"He's looking to put the ball up. He takes a lot of shots," said Babul. "He's strong. He has some good moves so he's a tough player to play. When we go against a team where I know I'm going to be guarding their leading scorer, I get up for it."
But it wasn't Smith who put up the biggest numbers against UMass last year. In the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament last year UMass' Monty Mack and Duquesne's Courtney Wallace put on a scoring exhibition, with Mack edging Wallace, 27-26, in UMass' 80-70 win.
Mack is just one Minuteman who worries Porter.
"Mack is an all-leaguer," Porter said. "UMass is coming around. I saw them beat Rhode Island on TV. Their chemistry has been better."
Porter praised Minuteman forward Chris Kirkland, who played his high school basketball in the Steel City.
"He's from Pittsburgh and I try to keep up with how those guys are doing," Porter said. "We actually recruited Chris, but my buddy (John) Calipari scooped him up and then left for the NBA. Chris was raw talent coming out of high school, but he's developed into a nice college player. Last year I thought he deserved most improved player in the league."
Kirkland missed practice Tuesday, suffering from a flu that has hit a few Minutemen, but Flint expects him to be fine for tonight's game.
Duquesne presents some unusual matchups, as the Dukes start three guards and two 6-foot-7 forwards. If Babul guards Smith, 6-11 center Kitwana Rhymer likely would take 6-7 Devone Stephenson, leaving power forward Kirkland to cover one of the guards.
Duquesne might not stay in that lineup long, though, with Wallace and two 6-10 big men coming off the bench.